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Rising above mistakes and self-doubt

A life strategy is formed by finding something you are passionate about and good at

My mother used to complain that I thought I was always right and everyone else was wrong. I do have a tendency to be overconfident, and there are a number of things in which I have made mistakes.

People sometimes ask me if I remember my mistakes, those which if I had made the right decisions at the time, might have made my career easier or more successful.

I am not one who dwells on mistakes. I rationalise and move on. Why didn't something happen? Why didn't it work? The "why" in mistakes, that is where knowledge comes from.

Once, when I was in high school, I had influenza right at the beginning of the teaching of analytic geometry and calculus.

I missed the first two weeks.

I finished in the top 30 per cent of the class but was not particularly brilliant in maths. So I had the impression that everybody was better in maths than I was.

When I looked back, I saw that it was probably because I missed a few days of learning some fundamental concepts.

In subsequent years, I realised I was not that bad at maths.

I had that mistaken impression from my high school days.

It led to me choosing medicine over engineering because, in medicine, you do not have to be brilliant in maths.

But it meant that I had to teach myself in some areas of high-level maths. I had to put in a lot of effort to refresh my calculus, for example, for calculating radioactive decays.

I made another mistake in medical school, which impacted my career pathway.

I was focused on becoming a doctor, and I did not give any importance to basic research in the first seven years after graduating from medical school.

I was focused on completing my medical training, becoming a practitioner and seeing lots of patients in private practice. I should have taken some time out to do a further degree in basic sciences.

Eventually, I became more interested in an academic career combining research with clinical medicine in a university hospital environment.

I was rotated to the gastroenterology division, where I met Dr Robin Warren and started work on the Helicobacter bacteria and its relationship to stomach ulcers.

But I was focused on being a clinician primarily and doing the scientific part as an extra.

In retrospect, I should have phased out some of my clinical work and done more basic research, which was important to keep up with during those years.

From the late 80s to the early 90s, the time of the biologic revolution, I focused on IT, but the DNA revolution was also starting. Lots of new sciences passed me by at the end of the 80s, and I had to teach myself many things to catch up.

I am still like that today. I do not have time to sit down and study. I attend conferences, picking up just the interesting parts.

GENERALIST

I am a generalist, so to speak. And this has caused me to develop an inferiority complex; there is always somebody who is better than me, whether it be in genomics, cell biology or IT.

However, being a generalist helps you keep an open mind and to think laterally. So in some respects, it is an advantage.

Mistakes do happen, but chance favours the prepared mind.

If you are doing something that you like and are good at, your ears are always open and you are always extracting information that may lead to innovations. You need to ride above criticisms.

In 1984, I was trying to infect an animal model, but most of my research work was rejected for publication.

I was met with constant criticism that my conclusions were premature and not well supported. My research was stuck.

I needed a human model and decided that I would be the one. I did not discuss this with the ethics committee. But I had a successful self-infection and proved my point.

Looking back, I would have done this again under the same circumstances, but I think it would have been better if I had a volunteer whose condition could be monitored every day.

You will probably need to pay such a volunteer, so if you do not have the resources, I think it is still possible to do it yourself, calculating all the risks, of course.

When I was 25 or 30, I realised for the first time that I was rather useful.

Prior to that, it was all education and learning. I did not feel that I had any particular value.

Then, all of a sudden, I had a job and was productive. People came to ask for my assistance, and my special skills came into use. So my life strategy since then is to focus on what I can do best.

I am a believer that once successful strategies have been developed, they will get you on the right path most of the time.

You do not have to make radical life changes after every small failure - it is not sustainable.

Your education and the things you learn in school then becomeimportant in helping you form a life strategy. So find something you are good or useful at.

If you are a butcher or cabinet-maker, you do not have to walk around thinking: "If only I could be a brain surgeon."

Each time I have a nice Australian steak, I say thank you to the butcher as he found me that piece of steak, and I appreciate it.

Professor Barry Marshall is a visiting professor at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine. His discovery that stomach ulcers result from bacteria and can be cured by antibiotics led to his winning of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with his colleague, Professor Robin Warren.

This article appeared in the Jan-Feb 2017 issue of the Nanyang Technological University magazine, Hey!

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